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A response based on hope, not fear

By Kevin McDonald - posted Monday, 27 November 2006

The first years of this new millennium have been dominated by war, terror, violence and fear. We are now witnessing the development of what is best called "global terrorism", no longer a proxy for states or primarily addressing states.

One influential view is that this reflects a civilisational opposition, as a world of opposing political systems gives way to a world of opposing cultures and civilisations. This view regards contemporary forms of terror as an expression of cultural and civilisational crisis.

The most influential such account is proposed by Bernard Lewis, who writes of the crisis of Islam and what he calls "the roots of Muslim rage". Lewis took up the term "clash of civilisation" (first used by Christian missionaries in the Middle East), being later popularised by Samuel Huntington. Osama bin Laden is a strong proponent of this view of the world, and warmly endorses much of Huntington's thesis.


Sociology is increasingly aware of the importance of civilisations and cultures, but largely rejects views of a world made up of hostile civilisations. American historian Richard Bulliet has convincingly argued for what he calls an Islamo-Christian civilisation, demonstrating the extent to which Islam and Christianity have an extraordinary historical interpenetration, to the point that he suggests they constitute one civilisation.

Other social scientists point out the extent to which contemporary forms of terror do not reflect a closed civilisational logic. Arjun Appadurai notes that terror takes a cellular form, as opposed to the hierarchies of states. These are loose networks rather than the vertical structures that tend to characterise organisational forms of industrial society.

Personal relationships play a key role. These networks are decentred - al-Qaida, for example, has no systematic recruitment process nor membership system. Political scientist Olivier Roy points to the importance of personal relationships and mobility in contemporary terror. The people involved in such action are often cosmopolitan, have lived in several countries and speak several languages. Many are trained in technical and scientific disciplines.

Their religiosity has important Western dimensions: the importance of personal beliefs, the construction of personal rituals, evident in the case of Mohammed Atta, whose last testament details a series of rituals that he has invented for the treatment of his body.

Many involved in contemporary forms of terror do not emerge from deep tradition or a closed civilisation. Azahari bin Husin, killed in a police raid on Java earlier this year, was a native of the southern Malaysian state of Johor. He studied mechanical engineering at Adelaide University before gaining a doctorate in property valuation from Reading University in England in 1990, and was a university lecturer before becoming involved in the loose network we call Jemaah Islamiah.

The distance from religiosity is a recurring theme.


Shehzad Tanweer, one of the four young men involved in the 2005 London bombings, had a history of police cautions for public order offences, and was part of a gang called the Mullah Crew.

It is dangerously simplistic to see terrorism as an export of poorer countries to their richer neighbours. We are not dealing with a clash of civilisations, but complex forms of mobility and sociality.

One important dimension is that played by contemporary media technologies. Violence is increasingly associated with the production and circulation of images. US troops in Iraq last year were trading pictures of dead and mutilated Iraqis to gain free access to Internet-based porn sites. Many of those involved in suicide missions in Iraq film their action right up to the point of the explosion - including very non-traditional public displays of affection to wives before heading off.

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First published in The Australian on November 22, 2006. This is an edited extract from the T.R. Ashworth Lecture, delivered on November 16, 2006 at the University of Melbourne. Kevin McDonald is a senior lecturer in sociology at the university. The full text is available here.

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About the Author

Kevin McDonald is a sociologist and Research Development Professor in the School of Global Studies, Social Science and Planning at RMIT University in Melbourne. He is also a volunteer working with Iraqi academic refugees in Jordan.

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